Concerns over China’s increasing military presence in the South China Sea appear to be at the centre of the Turnbull government’s Defence White Paper, released today, which flags a massive, $30 billion in additional spending over the next decade.
The Paper says it aims to create “a more capable, agile and potent future force that has greater capacity to respond to strategic risk wherever Australia’s defence interests are engaged”.
The Navy will receive the bulk of the additional funding, with a new fleet of submarines now coming with a $50 billion price tag – more than double the figure previously claimed – while the Army and Air Force will also receive additional weaponry and hardware as government brings forward spending with a target of 2% of GDP by 2020-21, two years earlier than planned.
Annual spending will rise from $32.4 billion to $58.7 billion in 2025.
The Navy will also add nine new anti-submarine warfare frigates and 12 offshore patrol vessels to its fleet, along with an extra seven PA-8 Poseidon spy planes above the eight already planned.
Defence minister Marise Payne said it is “the most ambitious plan to regenerate the Royal Australian Navy since the Second World War”.
The RAAF will receive seven MQ4C Triton unmanned surveillance drones, 12 new E/A-18G Growlers electronic attack aircraft, and 72 of the controversial and delayed F-35A Lightning II Joint strike fighters. More air-to-air refuellers are also on the shopping list.
The Army will be equipped with armed drones for both surveillance and protecting land forces, a long-range rocket system, special forces helicopters and improved Australian-made troop transport vehicles.
The government will maintain military expenditure regardless of the economic outlook, saying it will be “decoupled” from GDP growth, as it seeks to deal with the “uncertainty and tension in our region” over territorial disputes.
The Defence White Paper, which spans nearly four decades, has a short-term goal of $195 billion in expenditure on improved defence capability or equipment over the next five years, while the government plans to increase the ADF’s uniformed personnel to 62,400 over the next decade, 5000 more than previously planned.
Minister Payne called it “the largest single rebalance… in a generation”. Personnel numbers will be at their highest since 1990, when the Hawke government entered the first Gulf War.
“This White Paper sets out how we can protect our interests in our region and across the globe,” she said.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said the strategic plan was to “make Australia’s defence capability “more powerful on land and in the skies and more commanding both on the seas and beneath them”.
The bill for 12 new submarines, doubling the size of the existing fleet, is perhaps the most surprising element. The $4 billion per sub price tag does not include lifetime maintenance, which is expected to at least double the price. The submarines will be a “rolling acquisition” between 2018 and 2057, with some experts estimating the total cost of the program could top $150 billion.
“We will ensure the Australian submarine involvement is sustainable over the longer term by building a new force of 12 regionally superior submarines,” the prime minister said.
The White Paper also outlines an updating of information and communications technology (ICT), which the defence minister described as “retro” at the launch of the paper, with some parts of defence using versions of Microsoft Windows older than some of the people in the room.
Cyber warfare is also at the forefront of the White Paper’s thinking with $300 million and additional 800 personnel “to defer and defend against the threat of cyber attack”, according to the minister.
“It is a rapidly developing and dynamic area… you need to have the smartest people you can secure,” Turnbull said.
“The work and the professionalism, the technological ingenuity of our cyber specialists… there is no one better in the world – and we will be building on that.”
Senator Payne said defence investment will be a “significant boost” to regional Australia.
In a joint statement by the prime minister and defence minister, they said “in the period to 2035, Australia will have greater opportunities for prosperity and development, but it will also face greater uncertainty. We need to be prepared”.
“The White Paper recognises Australia’s security and prosperity is directly tied to the stability of our region and to the maintenance of a stable, rules based global order,” their statement said.
The prime minister said it was “a fully costed plan”.